Workbook on Digital Private Papers > Legal Issues

'Your Right to Know'
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (c36)

Over sixty countries have implemented some form of freedom of information legislation and many more countries around the world are working towards introducing similar laws. Such legislation defines a legal process by which government information is available to the public and sets rules on governmental secrecy. In England and Wales the FOIA is part of the Labour government's drive to modernise and open up government. The FOIA applies across the public sector as a whole, at national, regional and local level. The Act gives individuals a right to access information held by public sector bodies covered by the Act.

There is separate provision for Scotland in the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (2002 asp 13).

Publication schemes

FOIA places statutory duties on public sectors bodies to produce a 'publication scheme' which explains what information they put into the public domain as a matter of course and how to access that information. Publication schemes may well become a useful tool for researchers.

Freedom of Information requests

When a written request for information is made to a public sector body it must be considered as a request under the Act. This means that the enquirer must be told whether the information they seek exists and they must be provided with access to the information within 20 working days of the request.

The Act intends to promote access to information in public records, but it does have a number of exemptions which can be applied, although these are subject to a 'public interest test'. Exemptions relevant to those responsible for archives and manuscripts include:

Information held on behalf of another person is also exempt from the Act under Section 3(2)(a). Under s. 12(1), institutions may also refuse to provide information where 'the authority estimates that the cost of complying would exceed the appropriate limit'.

Section 46 of the FOIA required the Lord Chancellor to publish a Code of Practice on the Management of Records. He did this in November 2002.

The Information Commissioner's Office oversees the implementation of FOIA.

Evaluating the first year of FOIA

JISC and Universities UK recently conducted a survey of English and Welsh universities to find out how the first year of FOIA has impacted on HE institutions; the results provide information about operational aspects of fulfilling requests as well as a breakdown of the kinds of requests received. There has also been much press coverage on the FOIA during its first year of operation including Lord Falconers belief that a clamp down on frivolous enquiries is overdue.

Disclaimer: the guidance given in the Paradigm workbook is not legal advice. Legal advice from a solicitor with expertise in the appropriate field should be sought before taking action in relation to specific matters.